The Gospel as Apologetic
For two millennia, Christian apologists have been defending the truth of Christianity. Working in fields as diverse as philosophy, history, and cosmology, apologists have aimed to show that Christian belief is rational and compelling. However, if I were a skeptic, I wouldn't challenge apologetic arguments directly. I could even admit that there was some evidence for Christianity, even if I deemed it insufficient. Instead, I'd ask, How can you say that Christianity is rational when so few Christians are even aware of these arguments? Isn't it obvious that most Christians adopt their beliefs on the basis of emotion or tradition or culture, rather than on the basis of reason and evidence? This is an interesting objection. How could we respond?
First, we could simply throw the average Christian under a bus and insist that their simple trust in Jesus is indeed unjustified. Needless to say, I strongly discourage this approach. The Bible consistently lifts up humble, child-like faith as an example to be emulated, not a source of embarrassment. Alternatively, apologists could appeal to a variety of "religious experiences," e.g. answered prayer, healings, miracles, and dreams to underwrite Christian belief. Certainly, the Bible presents many examples of Jesus and his followers doing miracles that authenticated their message. Yet not all Christians today have witnessed miracles nor have they had dreams and visions which led them to Christ. Consequently, this answer is insufficient. Finally, various philosophers and theologians have appealed to the self-attesting nature of Scripture or to the power of the Holy Spirit to supernaturally grant Christians a conviction that Christianity is, in fact, true. However, this approach is unlikely to satisfy skeptics who are looking for rational, communicable arguments that justify Christian convictions. So, are we stuck?
I believe that the gospel itself—the message of Jesus's sinless life, substitutionary death, and vindicating resurrection—is evidence that Christianity is true. Moreover, my claim is that all Christians, universally, throughout history and across culture, have implicitly relied on this argument from the gospel to justify their Christian faith, even if they are not able to explicitly articulate it.
The structure of the argument is straightforward and can best be seen through an analogy. Imagine that I'm playing pick-up basketball when I suddenly collapse. A crowd gathers and various concerned teammates offer their assessments and suggestions. One says, You just tripped. Get up and walk it off. A second says, I think you may have sprained your ankle. I'll run to my car and grab an ACE bandage. A third says, There's a pharmacy across the street. I think you should take some Advil and then you'll be fine.
Suddenly, a woman bursts into the crowd and shouts, This man is in grave danger! I saw what happened. I'm a doctor. Call an ambulance! The onlookers are incredulous. They begin to express their skepticism and question her credentials. But the woman leans down to me and says, You can't feel your legs and you can't move. She's greeted by loud guffaws from the people in the crowd who insist that she's wildly overreacting. But in the midst of their complaints, I speak up. Take me to a hospital. I demand, Call an ambulance!
Why was my trust in the woman justified? Because I couldn't feel my legs and I couldn't move. I had immediate access to these two facts of which the crowd was unaware. And somehow, out of all the people in the crowd, this woman was able to recognize my actual condition. The best explanation for her unique insight is that she actually is a doctor. Therefore, I am rationally justified in trusting her.
3 Arguments for Christianity’s Truth
We can make an argument for the truth of Christianity that follows the same structure. First, if some religion is unique among all world religions in its affirmation of basic truths about the human condition, then the best explanation is that this religion is true. Second, Christianity makes two unique claims about the human condition: 1) we are radically corrupt moral failures who 2) need to be rescued. Third, these claims are true. Therefore, it follows logically that the best explanation for Christianity's ability to uniquely diagnose our spiritual condition is that it is true.
First, the basketball illustration shows that the argument's reasoning is valid. If Christianity is true, then it makes perfect sense that it would correctly identify humanity's deepest problem and its solution. But if Christianity is not true, then it is remarkably surprising that it would uniquely stumble on these two truths by sheer luck.
Second, Christianity really is unique among major world religions in its views of sin and salvation. In his book God Is Not One, non-Christian religious studies professor, Stephen Prothero, argues that every religion poses a unique fundamental problem faced by humanity and offers a unique solution. When it comes to Christianity, he writes bluntly:
[J]ust as hitting home runs is the monopoly of one sport, salvation is the monopoly of one religion. If you see sin as the human predicament and salvation as the solution, then it makes sense to come to Christ.1
This is not his judgment on the merits or demerits of Christianity, but is merely an empirical observation about what Christianity teaches as distinct from other world religions.
If Christianity is true, then it makes perfect sense that it would correctly identify humanity's deepest problem and its solution.
Finally, it really is true that we are moral failures who need to be rescued. Here, we can turn over the pages of history or childhood development or experimental psychology to see the wreckage that sin has made of the human soul. More pertinently, a serious reflection on our own lives will reveal the ways that we, too, have “fallen short of the glory of God.”
Similarly, our need for rescue can be recognized through introspection. Like the woman with the hemorrhage in Luke 8, we've spent all we have on doctors, therapists, self-help gurus, wellness clinics, and advice columnists, and we find ourselves “no better but rather worse.” Reflection on the nature of law and punishment reveals that we need forgiveness from outside of ourselves to wipe our slate clean and declare us “not guilty.”
But if the three premises of this argument are true, then it logically follows that the truth of Christianity is the best explanation for our existential reality.
Is Christianity Rational?
Now, how does this argument answer the skeptic's initial question: Is Christianity a rational religion? Imagine that an atheist steps onto a bus and finds a tiny gospel tract under her seat. She reads it and when she steps off the bus, she's a Christian. A skeptic might accost her and ask with incredulity, What could that tract have possibly said to convince you that Christianity is true? What arguments did it provide? What evidence?
She'd probably say something like this: “This tract said I was a moral failure who'd broken God's law. I thought back on my life and I realized that was true. I've made a mess of things. I look at the broken relationships, the anger, the bitterness, and the times I've failed to live up to even my own standards, and it's clear that something's wrong with me. But I've also tried to get better. I've read self-help books. I've gone to therapy. I've made resolutions. None of that got rid of my guilt or my shame. I'm still a wreck, and this tract explains why. It said that only Jesus can truly forgive me and fix me. And here's the strangest part. I've attended spiritual retreats. I've been to wellness centers. I've gone to synagogues and ashrams and temples and I'm telling you, this tract is different. I’ve never heard this message before. So it made sense to become a Christian."
This woman just outlined the argument from the gospel. She realized she's a sinner. She realized she needs rescue. And she realized that the message of Christianity is unique. Therefore, it was rational for her to accept Christianity as true. An atheist might disagree with one or more of this argument’s premises, but it is exactly what he asked for: a rational argument for the truth of Christianity that all Christians everywhere implicitly accept.
My hope is that the argument from the gospel will not only supplement traditional apologetics arguments but will also give Christians confidence in our evangelism. We don’t need to master analytic philosophy or cosmology to know that Christianity is true or to share it with others. We only need to remember and proclaim the gospel: the good news of Jesus's sinless life, atoning death, and vindicating resurrection—the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.
- Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2010), 22.
Neil Shenvi is the author of Why Believe?: A Reasoned Approach to Christianity.
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